IT WAS 1976, and Tony Gittens was drumming his fingers on his desk in the grants office of Federal City College.

Here he was, with a PhD in urban studies, a strong background in penology, and a headful of ideas . . . and just about out of his mind from reviewing grant requests.

So he decided to write a proposal of his own. He asked for $100,000 to launch a major Afro-American film festival in Washington.

And was turned down.

But on the second try, the National Endowment for the Arts gave him $15,000 to see what he could do about black and Third World film. What he could do was quit his job ("I was a little anxious; it was all I had") and throw himself into the project with the devotion of a lifelong filmgoer and the desperate energy of a jobless, divorced father.

The first programs in the small Federal City College auditorium at 10th and E streets NW had people stacked up in the halls and hanging out the windows. Federal City College, which soon became the University of the District of Columbia, recognized a man onto a good thing and hired him full time. The Black Film Institute moved into a 500-seat theater on Georgia Avenue and filled it, then to the 700-seater at Dunbar High and filled that, started a summer series that brought people in buses from all over (including the handicapped who had to be carried up the steps wheelchairs and all) and became a cultural bright spot in the Washington dog days.

Today the institute has a staff, a regular audience of 300 to 550, a schedule reaching far into next year and a permanent home at UDC Auditorium on Van Ness Street. The films, with subsequent lectures, are still free.

And Gittens himself has been named one of 28 members of the D.C. Cable TV Design Commission.

This fall, the film institute will feature an African series followed by a series on new Brazilian work. First will be "The Wind," opening Oct. 11 or 13 depending on when the director, Souleymane Cisse, will be in town. Cisse is from Mali, one of the new generation of African filmmakers.

"Many of the early African pictures came from Senegal," Gittens said, "especially those by Ousmane Sembene. But now they're being made everywhere. And they are technically superior. These people are trained in Europe, a lot of them, Paris or Moscow, and they are from countries with colonial backgrounds and a tradition of film as art."

On Oct. 17 "Wend Kuuni," a film made in Upper Volta, will be shown, and on Oct. 19 a picture by South African writer Nadine Gordimer, probably "Praise," is set. On Oct. 26, Sembene's latest film, "Ceddo," is scheduled, and filmmaker Haile Gerima will speak afterward. On Nov. 16, another Senegalese picture, "Jom," will be screened.

"Our audience is ninety percent black," said the 38-year-old Gittens, "but it changes with the kind of films we show: West Indian, Latin American, musical--a lot of white kids came to see Bob Marley on film--or any old Paul Robeson movie, which is sure to bring out the older people who will testify that they knew him when. Then there's always a contingent from the State Department and Peace Corps people."

Gittens was a student leader in the 1968 uproar at Howard University. He has loved the movies since his Brooklyn boyhood. But now he sees something else in film: the power to raise issues, to bring people together, to clarify conflicts, to shake us all into a new awareness of the realities of black life.